content warnings for discussions of my personal experiences with suicidal thoughts, depression and hospitalizations
Given my personality traits it’s a bit surprising to me that I’m just not very good at anniversaries or consistent remembrances. Honestly the only dates that I can rely upon remembering annually is Virginia Woolf’s birthday (25th of January) and Ben and Jerry’s Free Cone Day (to be fair this one is programmed into my Google Calendar because I’m terrified of missing it) so I wasn’t prepared to find myself marking the one year anniversary of my depression related hospitalization. As the date approached my mind began to draw up all these memories of one of my darkest days (In my list of “darkest days” this time ranks just below the time I bought discount candy corn, kept eating it despite a chemically taste that made me ill until my partner made me throw it out and then found myself seriously considered digging it out of my trash can.)
In 2013 on the last Friday before the week of Thanksgiving I (thankfully) told my therapist that my suicidal thoughts had grown to new heights and she (thankfully) decided that I needed intensive professional observation and help. I have a very clear memory of sitting in a small office at the school’s health services building in jeans and a massive blue sweater, my hands and stomach clenching in rhythm. True to my nature I created an icy calm in my voice in an attempt to convince my therapist that all I really needed was to drive myself back to Vermont to be with my cat. Thankfully (this word continues to show up) she kept politely calling my bullshit as we waited for the ambulance to show up. The ambulance ride was my very first and I kept trying to get the driver to just turn off the lights so that I wouldn’t inconvenience the cars and trucks we kept forcing to the side of the road as we rushed to the local hospital. At the hospital I hung out in a bed with a television that I couldn’t hear until my parents arrived. Once I’d been persuaded by the doctors that I was really, honestly, sincerely, definitely not going to be released into my parents custody (Once again my swearing that if I was reunited with my cat I’d be a-0k failed to win over my medical caregivers.) I picked a Vermont facility to spend the rest of my treatment at. I’m not going to say much about my time at the Vermont facility except that everyone was very nice and upon arriving I knew I had to get home. The idea of spending time with other people (particularly strangers!) during an emotionally vulnerable time was too much for my misanthropic, introverted self to handle. Thankfully (we’re not even close to the last time I’m going to say that word) I found a psychiatrist who trusted me, helped me to formulate an emergency contingency plan and then got me discharged and back to my cat within thirty-six hours of my initial disclosure to my therapist.
There’s a fuck load of things about this span of time that I’m thankful for. I’m thankful that I have a good support network that includes family, friends and medical people. I’m thankful for all the things that came together that helped to stop me from killing myself. I’m thankful that the medical facilities were competent and worked with my needs. I’m thankful that I was allowed to wear my cardigan (a present from my sister) when I was shivering in that first hospital. Perhaps most importantly I’m thankful for what I learned:
I learned that I’m able (and allowed) to lean on the people in my life when I can’t carry myself. I learned that it’s not a bad thing to use substances (for me it’s Zoloft and Ativan) to go about my life. I learned that while I still see the world darkly and cynically there’s more goodness out there than I knew. I learned that I need to prioritize my safety and health or else I’m useless to everyone I care about. I learned that Revolting Librarians Redux: Radical Librarians Speak Out (edited by Jessamyn West and K.R. Roberto) makes great hospitalization reading. I learned that I have friends and family who don’t treat post-hospitalization me like a fragile glass ornament and who respect my ability to recognize when I can and when I can’t want to talk about my depression. I learned that I need to make plans about what to do if my depression incapacitates me. I learned that I can see my depression as an actual fight and not some self-indulgent whining. I learned that I can pick myself up and dust myself off and carry on. I learned that it’s ok that sometimes I need to lay in the dirt before dusting myself 0ff. I learned that my desire to use humor during moments of emotional distress isn’t deflection but rather a legitimate tool I use to understand my pain. I learned that I need to be public about my experiences.
It’s that last lesson that I want to spend the rest of this essay on. Learning that I need (or want? I’m still fuzzy on this but “need” feels comfortable right now.) to be public about my experiences with depression in general but hospitalization specifically comes from a moment that I didn’t mention in my above narrative. When I was sitting in the office as an ambulance virgin with my parents personally notified there was only one person I needed to get in touch with: a friend who I’ve never met in person. To this day I thank G-d that I was able to reach her on my phone via Google Hangouts’ chat function.
We met when I wrote to her at the end of 2012 after I read a blog post of hers that resonated with me. Facebook messages and e-mails moved between us and soon I considered her a good friend. But in late November of 2013 we’d known each other for not-quite a year and other than watching videos she put on Facebook I’d never head her voice so why was it so important that in that moment I had to talk to her? It’s because she was the only person in my life who could help me understand what I could expect from hospitalization. I knew that she would be unable to tell me exactly what I would encounter but I could ask her questions and I could be reassured by someone who had some idea of what it was like to be a patient who found herself in a hospital for depression related reasons.
Her ability to speak publicly about hospitalization meant that I when I was placed into a similar situation I was able to access someone’s real life experiences. I don’t think it’s possible for me to overstate how important it was for me to hear the words of someone who had been where I was. Even if I hadn’t been able to get in touch with her I think just knowing of her experiences would’ve helped to keep me as grounded as I could be in a situation like this. When my brain began to swarm with images of Arkham Asylum and Nurse Ratched I could pull myself together with the information I learned from my friend’s experience. As we can see from my repeated promises that all I needed was my cat I wasn’t exactly thrilled or enthusiastic about being hospitalized but I wasn’t terrified because I wasn’t facing the unknown. I was scared and nervous but I wasn’t wild-eyed and raving in fear.
I’m so thankful to my friend and I know that I now feel a drive, a need to share my experiences, to help others who may one day be in the same position as us.
I want to end with a message to anyone who is going into a hospital, who thinks they might one day go into a hospital or who is afraid they’ll be hospitalized. I can’t promise that everything is going to be ok (I don’t trust people who claim that they can promise this.) but I can promise that you’re not alone. Going into a hospital doesn’t mean you’re wrong, that you’re a failure, that you’re worthless. Being in a hospital may be scary and it may be painful but there may be other moments too. You might find joy and humor and love and support in a hospital. I hope the people who work with you are kind and compassionate and I speak from experience when I say that these people exist. Our time in hospitals probably can’t heal us but it may be able to help us take care of ourselves in times when we struggle with our own existence.
While this post is very personal and full of emotions for me I do want to say that I believe in the power of sharing narratives and I’m happy with this essay being shared in the hope that it may be useful to others.